Archive for July, 2013|Monthly archive page

Four minutes of Nests

I made a short promotional video for the Nests music installation project on Sunday. What do you think?

 

One of the great design challenges of Nests was ensuring it remained a portable installation, with a set that could be pulled down and packed up small to fit in the back of a standard stationwagon/estate car. Ken did a masterful job realising this challenge! Our hope now is for the work to travel further afield, to other performing arts centres, theatres, and festivals wanting to offer unique interactive arts experiences for young children. If you are someone working in one of these contexts and like the look of Nests, please get in touch to talk about how we could bring this beautiful installation to your venue!

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Hiding the music at the Arts Centre

On Friday I met with the Arts Centre production staff to make plans for the forthcoming Hidden Music workshops and performance at the Arts Centre Melbourne.

In Hidden Music children aged 9-13 compose music for specific locations, then perform their compositions for members of the public. However, there is a twist – the performances are hidden and the members of the public have to follow clues in order to find the performances. The children have to perform every time someone finds them.

ArtPlay - Gillian Howell Hidden Music WorkshopThe first Hidden Music project was at ArtPlay in 2012 (thanks City of Melbourne, for funding the project!). Children hid their performances on a stairway, in a book cubby, in an old shipping container, and in a clump of trees on the side of a hill (just behind the ArtPlay building). See some video footage here.

The Arts Centre Melbourne is presenting Hidden Music in the September school holidays. We will be in the Hamer Hall building, and have six glorious levels of formal rooms, stairways, escalators, cupboards, storage rooms, nooks and crannies from which to select our performances spaces.

Here are some of the options on Levels 5, 6 and 7 (Level 6 is street level):

Some of these spaces will take audience members into parts of the Hamer Hall that they don’t normally get to access. If we choose some of these stairwells, however, we’ll need to make sure the performers actually get found – there will be no chance of audible clues, as these are sound-locked spaces. I don’t want anyone languishing in cupboards, waiting to to get found so that they can play…

Here are some of the options on the lower levels:

I get pretty excited when I see rows of escalators and think of the ways these could be used in a site-specific composition – all that gliding and slow, gradual progression! I also love the thought of what a group of 9-13 year old musicians might make of the space-age green room with the gilt edges and white leather couches. To me it is very Barbarella. What clues will they give people to help them find the performance? And what music will they make to depict this fabulous space?

You’ll have to come along to the Hidden Music performances to find out. The performances are free and open to everyone, but places in the composition workshop are filling up fast, so please book your child in, and/or share this post with any one you think the project would interest!

Evolution of a song

One of the songs created in workshops at Djarindjin-Lombadina Remote Community School evolved slowly, and was the amalgam of three different musical ideas. It took us a couple of sessions to work out how to make it all fit together.

One section was purely instrumental music created by half the group. Playing chime bars, metalophones and violins, I got them working in E minor and inventing melodies by getting rhythmic ideas from favourite songs. The violinists were total beginners (as am I on the violin) so we worked on open strings and established a simple rhythmic accompaniment.

Gillian and violinists at Djarindjin-Lombadina school

Another section of the music was a guitar-driven section that used G major and C major 7 chords. Tony had taught the students how to play E minor and A minor the day before and they were keen to expand on this.

Guitarists, Djarindjin-Lombadina school (G. Howell, Tura New Music 2013)

Together, we added lyrics to this progression and it sounded like a chorus. The lyrics were in the local Bardi-Jaawi language and listed the names of different family members.

Nyami, mimi, goli, garlu,  [grandmother(mother’s side), grandfather (mother’s side), grandmother (father’s side), grandmother (father’s side)]

Budda, tidda, jaji [brother, sister, cousin]

Birigul, gulamor (mother, father]

My lian feels good when I belong in my buru [my heart feels good when I belong in my country]

Lian burr, lian burr [heart place, heart place]

A third section was created by one of the students working with one of the Aboriginal Teaching Assistants. Together they wrote lyrics about belonging to country, feeling the presence of the ancestor spirits, and the sense of strength and belonging that comes when you are in your own land.

Solo singer, Djarindjin-Lombadina school (Gillian Howell, Tura New Music 2013)

Have a listen! One of the short melodies was inspired by Macklemore’s Thrift shop. See if you can spot the connection.

 

Drawing a bit of space into music workshops

Music workshops can be very leader-focused, even when the creative content is child-generated, and the process is child-centred. There is a practical reason for this – music-making is noisy, and to facilitate group music-making you need the group to be working together for much of the time. It would be lovely to be able to give everyone time to do their own free explorations – as can happen in a visual arts workshop or lesson – but realistically, this requires lots of separate work spaces, or distance between each of the individuals. Otherwise, everyone would soon find themselves exhausted by the effort of blocking out other people’s sounds in order to focus on their own. And that kind of exhaustion makes people cranky. Or wired. Or both.

Quiet time to explore (One Arm Point, G. Howell)

We all know that taking a bit of quiet, self-focused time is a beautiful way to retreat from the demands of the world and recharge energy. When I worked as a music workshop artist at the English Language School I saw how the children were often at their most contented and peaceful during drawing and construction activities. Being able to focus on their own creative efforts meant they could retreat into their own thoughts – in their own language! Keeping up with a whole day of lessons in English could be very exhausting for the students, especially the most recently-arrived children, and the refugee children who had had limited prior schooling. Teachers also reported that art activities were the times that some students  would quietly disclose troubling thoughts or worries. Children felt safe and acknowledged during the art activities, and responded to the opportunity to process their thoughts while giving their outward attention to the tactile, personal experience of creating marks and visual gestures.

Therefore, I often used drawing tasks as a way of starting creative projects at the Language School. Children would draw as a way of exploring a particular topic and sharing their knowledge and experiences in a non-verbal way. Drawing seemed like a meditation for many of the children.

In my recent composition workshops at the remote community schools on Dampier Peninsula we began by inviting the children to draw ‘maps of the heart’. These maps showed the things in the children’s lives that were most important to them. They also established some other principles – the importance of each person’s contributions, the importance of having time to develop your thoughts, and the importance sharing only what you want to share. We did this drawing activity towards the end of the first workshop day, having spent the morning drumming, singing, and working with rhythms and counting. It served two functions – providing possible content for the development of musical content, and giving the individuals a bit of ‘time out’ from the noise and intense group focus of music-making.

At One Arm Point Community School, we also turned to drawing at the end of the second-last workshop day. We’d been working hard and everyone was ready for a break. And we wanted to spread the word about our concert the next day among people in the town who might not hear about it through the school. So we gathered up some paper and textas and made some posters.

People sat with their friends. Two of the older girls sang quietly away to themselves while they drew. Other children gathered around Tony and me, checking spelling and getting our input on things to include on their posters (some included sponsor messages!), or ways of drawing particular instruments. One or two were less engaged by the drawing task, and they wandered around the room, playing instruments occasionally, but also organising things (putting things away, tidying the space), and enjoying the quiet time.

Sometimes in a creative music workshop, we can feel so time-poor that we give all the available time over to the music. This is important, but I urge people never to overlook the importance of a little bit of space for individuals to retreat into their own heads for a while. Drawing is a way of doing this, while still developing project content and maintaining a sense of group ownership over the work.

Poster in the Community Shop, One Arm Point (G. Howell)

A month of workshops

What a month it’s been! I’ve just finished what will probably be my most densely and diversely-packed 4-week stretch for the year, with about 34 workshop calls, 5 media calls and a grant application completed, all up. It’s been exhilarating – one of those times when all the projects you’ve been nurturing start to come to fruition. It can feel a bit crazy, but it’s wonderful too and the best thing to do is to stay focused, keep planning, and just enjoy all those incredibly opportunities to play music with people of all ages and from all walks of life.

Firstly, of course, there was my residency with Tura New Music in the north-west of Australia. Lucky me, I was invited to go there as the lead artist for short residencies in three different schools. It’s a beautiful part of the world, quite magical, and quite remote. I loved the workshops, and communities and children we met there. I also loved being in a part of my own country that felt like a different world. North-west Australia is famed for its consistently jaw-droppingly, staggeringly beautiful sunsets, and we were also there at the time of the Super Full Moon a couple of weeks ago. Here are some of my efforts to capture these:

And a couple of sunrises:

Getting ready for Gillian Howell's Jam, Fed Square, June 2013Once back in Melbourne, I went straight into a Jam with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (you can see the pre-jam set-up on the left here). These jams link to the MSO’s repertoire, so I planned this one around Copland’s Appalachian Spring. We explored some of his rhythmic ideas, created a square dance inspired by the ‘hoe-down’ section of the piece, and finished with a rendition of the Shaker melody and song ‘Simple Gifts’. It all came together well, with some lovely singing (including a solo by a young girl named Elizabeth, who had a very sweet, true voice, and sang into the microphone with great confidence), and some inspired improvising from different participants.

I spent any spare time on the weekend putting the finishing touches on my application to the Australia Endeavour Awards, to support my PhD research. No need to say too much about that – it is like any application. You put in as much work as you can, taking care, shaping and sculpting it and trying to bring the word count down… and then you submit it. Lots of work. Fingers crossed.

Monday and Tuesday were spent with the MSO ArtPlay Ensemble. I love this little group – every school holidays we get together to make a new piece of music over two intensive days, and every time I am blown away by how hard everyone is prepared to work, how focused they are, and how much ownership they feel over the music. This is our second project for the year and we are working towards a performance outcome in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Russian Festival’ in August, so we get a bit more time to refine our composition further when we come together for that event.

On Thursday I presented a new children’s workshop at the Roola Boola Children’s Arts Festival in the City of Stonnington in Melbourne. I called the workshop Wet Watery Soundworld. It builds on two of my workshops from last year – the ‘Water’ workshop that I led for City Beats, and the Music Construction Site workshops that I led at ArtPlay. In the Wet Watery Soundworld, children were invited to explore a big range of musical sounds created in some way by water, as well as sounds that have long resonance and sustained tones (I call these ‘wet’ sounds as opposed to dry, less long-ringing sounds). I had some very captivating instruments for the children to try in this very splashy workshop. They loved the cups and the wooden bowls in particular. One of my musicians (a professional percussionist) said to me later, “That workshop reminded of just how much I love percussion!”

Also on Thursday I led a Family Jam at the Roola Boola Festival with a fabulous new children’s band called Lah-Lah’s Big Live Band. I chose one of their songs to use as the jam focus, a song with a laid-back, bluesy feel that was a great vehicle for improvised vocal lines, scat singing, percussion beats and some xylophone licks using the D minor blues scale. Lots of fun, with about 30+ kids and their parents taking part.

Nests June 2013 G. HowellToday, Friday, saw a remount of Nests, the theatrical music installation that I’ve created this year with visual theatre and design specialists Rebecca Russell and Ken Evans. Tony Hicks and I are the musicians on the show, and now that we are into our tenth or more installation-performances of this work, things are really starting to settle and flourish. The music that we play throughout – freely improvised in response to, and in dialogue with, the children as well as each other – provides a very strong musical foundation and framework for the children’s experience. It has taken time for this to develop, as we become used to the shapes and events that occur in each show – even though each version is unique, as it is created anew each time by the children and the choices they make with the instruments.

Today’s Nests episodes were our first for the 6-8 year old age group. We wondered if they would be expecting a more directed experience, so we took a moment to ‘prime’ them before they entered the space, suggesting that they listen and look for opportunities to engage in ‘musical conversations’ with each other and with us.

We found that this age group were eminently suited to the ambiguity and open-ended nature of musical conversations! They initiated conversations, and responded to those initiated by others. They hardly talked in the space at all, even though many of them had come in a group and knew each other.

I felt that Nests experiences at Roola Boola confirmed that we really have made something quite special here. It is incredibly free for the children – they wander and play whatever they like – yet at the same time it is a very musically and visually engaging experience, filled with interactions. The soundscape directs the action, but only implicitly. The children engage and follow the suggestions of the soundscape because they have responded to the invitation to enter into this environment fully, with their minds and imaginations ready to accept and invent. It’s a joy to be part of, each time we do it!

Nests, June 2013, Gillian Howell

Nests brought my month of workshops to a close. From here I return my focus to my PhD. Things will be ramping up a notch with that work in this half of the year, as I move towards completing an early draft of my literature review and methodology (which I need for confirmation, planned for November), an application to the Human Research Ethics board of the university, several conferences, and hopefully some fieldwork in Bosnia. The funding for the latter was confirmed just this week. I am still pinching myself, and can’t quite believe I will be travelling to that part of the world again. Which is why I use the word “hopefully”.